Since we’re a weekly magazine, “slow” is not a quality we often find ourselves working to achieve. But after embarking on the process of producing a special food issue under the guidance of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, we soon discovered that the “slow food values” she espouses are in harmony with our own. As she explains, “the pleasures of the table are a social as well as a private good,” and as such they beget responsibilities–responsibilities that our fast-food system, as currently configured, simply cannot meet. Waters assembled a forum of leading figures in the world of food to consider how this system should be changed.

In keeping with the spirit of the forum, this issue, The Nation‘s first (though we hope not last) on food, seeks not only to expose but to inspire. Thus, while there are articles investigating the grueling labor conditions on organic farms and in meatpacking plants, others explore how food justice activists are working to shift Harlem’s food consciousness and change the nature of school lunch. Linking many of the pieces–on subjects ranging from Wal-Mart to world hunger–is the theme of access to good, healthy food: How can it be democratized? As several of these articles attest, a veritable movement is arising to address this issue, which has all the more currency with the recent mainstreaming of the organic food industry. (Another sign of food’s political potency: the hundreds of passionate responses we received to our e-mail request for readers’ testimonials about their most beloved food institutions. Selected highlights appear in this week’s Letters section.)

Alice Waters, as well as Sylvan Brackett of Chez Panisse, provided essential editorial counsel for this issue. We would also like to thank Michael Pollan and Deirdre English for their help, as well as Anna Lappé, co-author of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, who served as a consulting editor.